Taste: Spirits: The Sommelier Drinks Beer

A brew can complement food as well as wine


Many of us see beer and wine as opposites, but they have more in common than either beer drinkers or wine lovers might like to admit. Both are refreshing and delicious, healthful and nutritious. Both derive their flavor complexity from natural fermentation with live yeast cultures. And both can be remarkably adept as food partners. Beer’s modest alcohol content and brisk carbonation cleanse the palate, while wine’s bracing acidity and intense flavor per sip pique the appetite.

The art of food pairing has been more widely explored among wine aficionados than beer experts. Only recently, with greater access to quality craft brews and premium imports, has beer pairing aspired to a higher level in ambitious restaurants. Now, it’s not just offered in beer-centric venues like Monk’s Café or Standard Tap. Ambitious fine-dining venues, like Nineteen upstairs at the Bellevue and Morimoto in Washington Square, recommend specialty brews with their cuisine. More relaxed food-oriented restaurants are getting in on the act as well. The beer selections are as good as the cuisine at Caribbean Blue Sky Café on West Germantown Pike and Spanish-tapas Bar ­Ferdinand in Northern Liberties.

Similar principles guide decision-making for both beer and wine pairing. Sommeliers and brewers alike take matching cues from the strongest flavor on the plate. By sticking to subtlety for understated dishes and saving bolder strokes for more highly seasoned recipes, we avoid combinations where one partner detracts from another. Just as a delicate prosecco might suit poached salmon, so too might a crisp kölsch. Grilled salmon may call for something deeper, like an Oregon pinot noir or a rich Trappist Dubbel.

With both beer and wine, two sources of similar sensation seem weaker together, not stronger, since our taste buds overload easily. Smoked beers seem less woody with barbecue; sweet wines always taste less sugary with dessert; and alcohol inflames the burn of spicy heat, whether the source is Victory’s potent Hop Wallop or a muscular Italian amarone Sartori.

But when we get beyond the big picture, beer- and wine-pairing ­principles diverge. Because of the acidity and tannins in wines, there are unpleasant clashes to avoid. Sancerre after sweet teriyaki will set teeth on edge as surely as orange juice after brushing your teeth. Big cabernet sauvignon will step on sashimi, leaving leathery bitterness. It’s much harder to find a bad match in beer. Here, the world is your oyster, whether you prefer it served with a pilsner, to emphasize its briny twang, or a porter, to contrast and coax out the surprising sweetness of the sea.

Old is the author of the recently released He Said Beer, She Said Wine. She may consult for some of the businesses she writes about.

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